A look back at the inaugural Capital Crime Festival in London

Happy New Year! For my first post of 2020, I thought I'd look back at one of my highlights of 2019 - the inaugural Capital Crime Festival in London. Firstly, my apologies to David Headley, Adam Hamdy and Midas PR, I intended to post this ages ago but then my laptop died before I managed to finish my write-up. Thankfully, my daughter has now passed her laptop on to me and I've been able to retrieve my notes (phew!) 

I was really grateful to be given the opportunity to attend the very first Capital Crime Festival which took place on 26th - 28th September 2019 at the De Vere Grand Connaught Rooms in Holborn, London. It’s hard to believe that London hasn’t had its own crime festival before now but thanks to everyone involved the weekend was an enormous success, meaning that the second festival will take place on 1st - 3rd October 2020, again at the Connaught Rooms.

If you didn’t attend last year, you might be wondering what you missed so here’s my account of my weekend to give you an idea of what you could be looking forward to if you decide to go this year...

After a slightly embarrassing moment when I fell up the steps in Foyles, Waterloo 😳,  I checked in to my Airbnb room in Perivale then headed back into London and the stunning De Vere Connaught Rooms for opening night drinks and the announcement of the DHH Literary Agency New Voices Award 2019. Huge congratulations to the winner, Ashley Harrison for The Dysconnect and to the two authors who were given honourable mentions; Victoria Goldman for The Redeemer and Patti Buff for The Ice Beneath Me. I hope this is the start of long and successful writing careers for you all.

It was lovely to catch up with a few of my fellow bloggers on Thursday and indeed over the course of the whole weekend. I don't get to as many events as I'd like but am always made to feel welcome by this fabulous group of people.

Friday began with Round 1 of Whose Crime Is It Anyway? which pitted two teams of debut crime and thriller writers against one another, with actor, Paul Clayton as the quiz-master. The teams were asked questions on each other’s books, had to act out a scene from one of the novels and with Paul Clayton as the unreliable narrator needed to try and figure out what book he was reading from (in a voice very unlikely to have been the one the author had in their head when they were writing!) After the quick fire round, Dysfunc were declared the winners over the Deadly Divas.

The second panel I attended on the Friday was entitled Crime on a Global Scale with Vaseem Khan, Leye Adenie, David Hewson, Craig Russell and Abir Mukherjee talking to Shaun Harris about international crime.

When asked about the genesis of their ideas, Vaseem Khan explained that he lived in India in his 20s during a period of transition. It’s a modern, vibrant country and he wants to present it authentically. Abir Mukherjee said he gets his ideas in the sauna. Kolkata during the British Raj was a culturally rich place - there was even a riot when a book fair finished early! The 20s and 30s formed modern India, influenced people like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and so had a large hand in contributing to all our identities. Leye Adenle’s first book, Easy Motion Tourist came about after he had a conversation with his mum and brothers about violence towards women in Nigeria. They discussed a case where the body parts of women were found on the highway and the victim blaming that took place when it was assumed the women had been prostitutes. He now realises that his main character is based on his mother who has always been active in women’s issues as director general for women’s affairs and principal of a girls school. David Hewson wanted to write about the ‘Ndrangheta and spoke of how as a deprived part of Italy, Calabria has developed its own social structure with organised crime having a huge impact on the area. Craig Hewson writes books set in various parts of the world, he loves the Czechs’ bizarre sense of humour and has become immersed in Germany’s personality, finding it fascinating how they deal with their difficult history.
In discussing about whether you can write about a place you haven’t been to, the panel agreed there are definite benefits to having visited it - Abir Mukherjee found it helped going to Kolkata because he discovered that the police there wear white rather than khaki. He also realised that the earth in India is black not red so going definitely helped with getting the little details right. Craig Russell said that Germans are very direct so it’s imperative that he walks the walk there whereas for his books set in 50s Glasgow, much of how the city was back then has gone now so first-hand knowledge might be helpful but it isn’t always essential. David Hewson agreed and said that although he is usually a stickler for research and visiting the places he writes about, he wasn’t able to get to the Faroes but as so few people visit there, nobody has told him that what he wrote was wrong!

Next up was Round 2 of Whose Crime Is It Anyway? which pitted Criminal Minds against the No-Namers. It was fiercely contested  - crime writers are a competitive bunch! - but Criminal Minds were eventually declared the winners and secured their place in the final. 

After a short break for lunch I headed to the next panel - The Psychology of Tension with Mark Edwards and Lisa Jewell in conversation with Claire McGowan. They discussed writing books with readers in mind and both acknowledged that certain elements seem to crop up in their stories - there is often a burning house in Lisa Jewell’s books and Mark Edwards often has hospitals and cats in his. Both try to create characters that their readers grow to care about before they are thrown into tricky situations. The pace of how the tension is allowed to build is vitally important and Mark said there is pressure to include a great twist. He describes his Magpies books as property noir (or scarebnb!) and took legal advice to find out how difficult it is to get rid of unwanted house guests; he wanted his readers to really hate the in-laws. Lisa admitted that she hates doing research and puts it off for as long as she can. 
Claire McGowan asked why we enjoy tense books; Lisa thinks it’s because the adrenaline rush is fun, Mark agreed saying you want to feel something when you’re reading and there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with knowing the resolution.
When they discussed what works and what doesn’t in books, Lisa said she hates it when characters act out of character without good reason. Mark looks for something fresh, saying that books sometimes seem to come in packs. Neither like being interrupted at home when they are writing but Mark said it was his best moment ever when a glazier called and asked to speak to his mum or dad! They both love the miracle of red herrings and how they can write a scene and then only discover later how it can be used. A question about strange research meant Lisa told us about looking up artificial insemination and buying sperm online whilst Mark once researched orgasmic meditation! 

It wasn’t surprising to see a packed house for the next event as Martina Cole discussed London as an iconic setting for the crime and thriller genre with Ali Karim. Even though she was struggling with a hoarse voice, Martina kept everyone thoroughly entertained with her thoughts and opinions, including her love for David Bowie. She shared several anecdotes with us as she reflected on how London and crime has changed over the years. She also talked with great insight about the prison system and how she hopes that by teaching creative writing in prisons she can help people come out a bit better than they went in. Her books are apparently the most stolen from bookshops and in her inimitable way her response to that it ‘I take it as a compliment.’

Next up came Ian Rankin and Don Winslow talking about the Human Cost of Crime with Chi Chi Izundu. This was a fascinating discussion as both writers considered the moral aspects of writing crime fiction. They discussed the ripple effects of crime, not just on the perpetrators and their victims but also on their families and on the police officers and support staff. Ian was asked to interview Ian Brady for a television programme about evil but he refused saying he didn’t want him anywhere near his head. Both writers get their inspiration from real life but while Ian finds it cathartic, Don feels that what he has learned about the thousands of drug war deaths has left an indelible mark on him. He is strongly in favour of legalising all drugs, pointing out that after fifty years of ‘the war on drugs’, if this is winning, he would hate to see what losing looks like. He said that after every panel somebody will come up to him to say they have lost somebody to drugs and it should be a health issue, not a criminal one. This is something that was particularly resonant with me as my brother was a heroin addict who died by suicide. I was surprised to find myself a little emotional when I spoke to him afterwards and was really touched when he gave me a hug. Both writers spoke so eloquently and with such great empathy and insight, this panel really was one of the highlights of the weekend for me.

The packed day continued with another stellar panel with Barry Forshaw in conversation with Lynda La Plante and Peter James. This was another fascinating and entertaining discussion as they talked about their long writing careers and the various adaptations of their work. Lynda La Plante was particularly frank when talking about how upset she was with the casting of the young Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect 1973. It was very clear that she was heartbroken by the whole process and how ignored she was made to feel.

The Grand Final of Whose Crime Is It Anyway? saw Dysfunc pitted against Criminal Minds in what proved to be a VERY competitive match as both teams went all out to be declared the first ever winners of this debut authors quiz. Dysfunc eventually proved to be the victors but it was certainly close. The three rounds of the quiz were admittedly a little chaotic but so much fun and Paul Clayton was a fabulous quiz master. I hope it returns next year.

The last panel I attended on Friday was Adapting Worlds: Books to Screen with SJ Watson and Paula Daly discussing the process of adapting books for screen with Adam Hamdy. Although I was feeling pretty tired after such a full day, I found this another really interesting conversation as they discussed having to hand over their books and trust the screenwriters and actors to know how best to present their works. SJ Watson acknowledged that there came a moment when he realised that Nicole Kidman perhaps knew the character better than he did. Paula Daly talked about the excitement created in her home town when Deep Water was filmed there. Both obviously enjoyed the process and felt very fortunate to have seen their books on screen given how many novels are written and even optioned for the screen but are never actually filmed. 

After such a packed day, I was ready for something to eat and had a lovely evening with some of my fellow bloggers. There were several of us attending Capital Crime and I really enjoyed seeing some familiar faces and making new friends.

Saturday began with When Women Make Murderers as Fiona Cummins, Laura Shepherd-Robinson, CJ Tudor and Olivia Kiernan discussed the success of female crime and thriller authors with Amy McLellan. When asked what motivated them to write their books, CJ Tudor said she likes to explore how everybody can have a dark side. Fiona Cummins agreed, saying that people are often products of their upbringing and she thinks it’s important to find some empathy towards the killers in her books and what drives them to do what they do. Laura Shepherd-Robinson talked about how slavery brutalised everybody involved in the trade, becoming corrupted and desensitised by the violence. She was struck by the detachment and coldness in the historical records she used when researching Blood & Sugar. Amy McLellan wondered why there is such a grisly fascination with psychopaths given that domestic killers are far more common and asked whether press sensationalism is to blame. Fiona thought that people are naturally voyeuristic and Olivia Kiernan agreed, saying that people can’t help being intrigued as these are people who look like us yet are capable of perpetrating horrible acts with such detachment. This was an excellent panel where the authors thoughtfully responded to each other’s points and had a thoughtful and entertaining discussion as a result. 

Next up was Chilled to the Bone with Karen Sullivan discussing the enduring and global appeal of Scandi Noir with Queen of Iceland Noir, Yrsa Siguradottir, Antti Tuomainen, the King of Helsinki Noir, Crown Prince of Icelandic Noir, Ragnar Jonasson and because he also needed a title - Sir Will Dean of the Swedish forest! This discussion didn’t quite go the way poor Karen had planned after Ragnar Jonasson described the real life remote island setting for his most recent book, The Island. When he mentioned in a previous talk that puffins are hunted and killed for food here, several audience members walked out but Capital Crime attendees weren’t as easily fazed and as a result learned more about puffin hunting than expected at a crime writing festival...
We did discover more than just grisly facts about seabirds, however, including a discussion about how their books explore social issues such as bullying, industry decline and control, sexism, ageism, love and faith. When talking about violence in books, Ragnar noted that the violence in his books isn’t explicit but it is a part of life. Yrsa said it’s important not to write more and more violent scenes to the point where books become torture porn. Antti said any violence has to serve the story and come from the characters and Will pointed out that often it’s not the violence that’s important but the ripples afterwards.

Another of my highlights of the weekend was the British Toughest Streets panel with Dreda Say Mitchell, Steph Marland, Amer Anwar and M.W. Craven. Dreda Say Michell said there is something beautiful about city landscapes and films like The Godfather and The Long Good Friday and shows like Hill Street Blues featured the urban landscapes she knows. Amer Anwar loved reading books set in London but realised the area he's from - the Southall/Hayes area - never featured and so he didn't see himself and the people he knows reflected. Steph Marland doesn't live in the city but was broken into and said that it was actually quite a useful experience as she now understands what it's like to feel invaded. She trained as a bounty hunter before writing her Lori Anderson series. Mike Craven said that Cumbria is far more than the Lake District and there are areas of significant deprivation, with estates run by thugs and a house with a number on the door is considered a grass.
Amer hopes that people will be able to see the warmth of the areas he writes about through his characters' eyes and Dreda talked about linguistic richness giving a platform to voices not usually heard. She pointed out that publishing is still largely middle class and London-based and not yet reflecting Britain as a whole. This was a funny, passionate and thought-provoking discussion about the need for crime fiction to be a true reflection of the breadth of diversity, cultures and lived experiences in the country.

Kate Atkinson fans were in for a real treat next as she was in conversation with Jake Kerridge about her books and even treated us to a reading from her latest Jackson Brodie book, Big Sky. She talked about why there had been a gap between this book and the first four in the series, explaining that she never thought he'd gone but she'd run out of steam and suggested that she needed a break after the TV series so that she didn't have the actor who played Brodie in her head when she wrote about him. Brodie fans will be delighted to learn there is more to come - although there may be another wait for the next book. She also has plans to write a novel set in the sixties and another in the 18th Century. She still has a lot of stories she wants to write and remarked, ' I’m going to have to live for a long time.'

The Forensic Mind Panel saw Chris Ewan talking to Denise Mina and Ann Cleeves. They agreed that crime fiction is enduringly popular because usually there's resolution at the end of the book and both women enjoy writing about the characters we don't necessarily always see - the off-centre characters. They said that crime authors need to try and understand why their characters behave as they do and to write without judging them. Denise enjoys the way crime fiction takes you to different places and discovering reasons why non-professionals would become involved in an investigation. She noted that flaws are vital to ensure characters are human and relatable. Ann likes to find out the truth when her detective does; she has a sense of them setting the tone of the book but then writes like a reader as it's no fun knowing the ending too soon. Denise agreed, saying it's okay to be lost and to allow yourself to discover what happened at the same time as the reader. She pointed out that most writing involves sitting at a desk making up likes and loves that she can wear what she wants to work - even if that's a tutu and furry boots!

The Changing Times panel had Paul Burston chairing an excellent discussion about how political and social changes have been reflected in crime fiction with Mari Hannah, A.A.Dhand, Joseph Knox and Stav Sherez. Joseph Knox started off by talking about the use of Spice by Manchester's homeless population and said it would almost be a crime not to address the issue. Stav Sherez noted that crime fiction on the 90s was perhaps more escapist whereas now authors write about more social issues and the effect on the individual. Paul pointed out that crime fiction often sees ordinary people in extraordinary situations and asked the panel if the plot or the characters come first. Stav said that it's an organic process, the plot affects character development and how they evolve over a series of books. Joseph starts with character but the plot informs and changes how his characters behave - and vice versa. A.A. Dhand wanted to see people like him in books; he is proud of being British and has experienced racism from both sides. His character-led novels explore socio-political topics and he honours his heritage and culture alongside his Britishness.
Paul wondered if there is a burden of representation at times, Mari Hannah said that when she started writing there was no lesbian main character and she was told by mainstream publishers that 'Middle England isn't ready' A.A. Dhand has experienced the same sort of comments. He said that if writing outside one's own experiences, it's vital to get it right, holding the diversity hand up is not enough and is just tokenism. This was a fascinating discussion with four passionate, thoughtful authors who all agreed that although the door is being pushed, it isn't fully open yet.

The last panel of the day, Fantastic Crime was the perfect way to wrap up a fantastic weekend of insightful questions and thoughtful, unexpected and often very funny answers. J.D. Fennell talked to Sarah Pinborough, Ben Aaronovitch and Stu Turton about the weird and wonderful and crossing genres in crime fiction. When asked where they got their ideas from, Sarah Pinborough said she can get them from anywhere, Ben Aaronovitch always wanted to write about working class cops doing magic, he was torn between writing crime and SFF so did both. Stu Turton always wanted to write an Agatha Christie type book but she had already written every conceivable plot. Ben Aaranovitch mentioned the Shakespeare Rule - steal anything but do it better and added his own corollary - steal bad ideas and make them better. When talking about setting, Stu said he needed a big house to honour the Christie trope, with lots of locations for different scenes taking place the same day and so his plot built the house but then research informed how to make it work. Ben noted that plot is characters in motion, the setting is needed to add emotions and interactions. Sarah said that London's history is almost a character in itself and that stories need the right setting to work with the plot. As the conversation turned to characters, she observed that there is an interesting dynamic between women as we are conditioned to compare ourselves to others, we want to like each other but have an inherent suspicion about others. Ben said his main character just walked into his head, he loves his emotional constipation and cynicism. Meanwhile, Stu admitted that having one character living the same day as different characters was really hard to write and he wouldn't have done it if he'd thought more about it first!

The party afterwards went on into the night to celebrate the winners of the first Capital Crime Readers Awards and the amazing success of the whole festival. I bowed out at about 11:30 but I suspect there were a few sore heads the next day...

Over the course of the weekend there were lots of laughs, a few embarrassing moments and obviously a fair bit of book buying! I loved catching up with bloggers and authors I know and making new friends. By the end my mind was frazzled (I tried ordering pineapple gnocchi instead of pumpkin!) but I came away inspired and with that warm fuzzy feeling you only get after spending a few days with people who write and read about murder and grisly crimes...
Huge thanks to all at Capital Crime - David Headley, Adam Hamdy, Lizzie Curle, the Goldsboro Books staff, Midas PR and the hardworking team of volunteers for making the first Capital Crime Festival such a success. Here’s to the next one!

The second Capital Crime Festival will take place on 1st - 3rd October 2020, for more information and to purchase tickets, see the Capital Crime website.